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NA840612 - MURAKAMI, H.: Elephant Vanishes (The) (Unabridged)

Haruki Murakami
The Elephant Vanishes

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin


Haruki Murakami has built up an international reputation that is reminiscent of the hey-day of 19th-century novelists. Then there would be mobs greeting ships that carried the latest instalment, now there are readers eagerly scanning bookshops, the Internet and magazines, hungrily searching for news of the latest work by the most popular Japanese author of modern times.

He was born in 1949 and spent most of his childhood in Kobe, with parents who were teachers and followers of the traditional Japanese literary world. Early in his life, he decided that this ancient formalism did not suit him, and a series of minor rebellions—marrying young, rejecting the salary-man lifestyle expected of him, opening a jazz café (Peter Cat)—singled him out from many of his contemporaries. His love of European literature and American music meant that when he decided to become a writer, what he wrote would instinctively have an appeal beyond his own country. The decision to dedicate himself to writing happened in a manner that could have come from one of his own stories—a jazzmad Japanese baseball fan sees a celebrated player hit a double, and hears a voice telling him to write a novel. So he does. And over the next decade becomes so popular in Japan that he has to leave it, a physical manifestation of a spiritual sense of dislocation. He toured widely, and taught in two American universities before returning to Japan after the Kobe earthquake—which destroyed his parents house—and the gas attacks on the Tokyo underground. Now settled in a suburb of the capital, he lives a life where physical fitness, good food, cats and, of course, music are the principal activities outside his writing.

His output is almost ceaseless. Quite apart from novels, there are short stories, essays, non-fiction works and especially translations, which demonstrate his deep affection for American fiction, in particular the works of Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, John Irving and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is his instinctive relationship with Western art—and global capitalism, its pushy brother—allied to his uncertain relationship with his home and its traditions that gives his voice such a broad appeal.

Yet this appeal is not heavy-handed in the writing itself. It is airily light, laconic, deceptively simple and—paradoxically—leavened with sequences of explicit violence and sexual content. This lightness, or dreaminess, of his plotlines is best exemplified in his short stories. They will often begin with a single line which Murakami then expands entirely at his imaginative whim, allowing himself to be taken on the journey as much as the reader, and accepting each new development as it occurs without questioning it. As a result, the world he creates has the same relationship to the real world as believable dreams do, and there is the same unpredictability and convincing absurdity as there is in dreams, the same apparent yet frequently unrevealed significance about objects. In allowing his waking imagination the same freedoms as our dream worlds, Murakami has tapped into an unconscious that resonates with readers from Tokyo to San Francisco, even if they are unsure how his stories seem to relate to their own.

The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of 17 short stories, written between 1983 and 1990, several of which were originally published in the New Yorker. While they all stand alone, they share many of the themes that are evinced in his novels—to such an extent that the first one (The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women) became the first chapter of a much longer work. These range from the almost obsessive inclusion of music and the frequent appearance (or disappearance) of cats, to more substantive stylistic and moral concerns. There is the first-person narrator, often in a vaguely creative job that doesn’t much interest him; there are unsatisfactory relationships; sudden dips into the surreal or absurd; unresolved questions or bizarre anomalies; and perhaps most significantly a vague and inexpressible sense of loss or dissatisfaction.

The stories in The Elephant Vanishes cover a high-school student about to start his adult life, a middle-class middle manager dealing with a defining moment in his childhood, a couple who feel that to break a curse they will have to hold up a McDonald’s, a telepathic little green monster and an elephant that vanishes. But while these occasionally fall into either science fiction or fairy-tale territory, Murakami never allows them to sit comfortably in any genre. Many of the characters are looking for something, or perhaps seeking something that they feel they need to find. But these quests do not have the satisfaction of an end achieved, and the stories themselves reflect this uncertainty. Even when a character has reached a conclusion, that conclusion is likely to be ‘What could I say?’ or the conviction that the impossible is the only rational explanation, or that there is no explanation. In his uncertain worlds, where even the familiar is imbued with the supernatural or surreal, this is as legitimate an answer as any, and yet it leaves a taste of something much less easily recognised than a traditionally rounded short story. There, the loose ends would be tied up, the mystery solved, the character revealed or the events logically explained. With Murakami, however, there is no such completion, no sense that the world does in fact make sense, and no reassuringly satisfactory resolution. This moral ambivalence is where his central appeal may lie. After one reading, you may feel that you have missed something; after two, you may still be uncertain about what it is; but after that, it begins to become clearer that the sense of there being something missing is the crucially defining element in his fiction.

This is what makes his stories disturbing and relevant to people all over the world. Although set nominally in Japan, there is very little that is exclusively Japanese in them; and the frequency with which American and European brands, musicians, authors and thinkers are mentioned gives his work a kind of geographical universality. This has a specific effect in Japan, where there is still discussion about the way that the country has absorbed so much of Western culture and what this has done to the country’s collective psyche; but Murakami’s strength is to place these extraordinary tales not at the heart of national enquiry, but at the point where the conscious and the unconscious sense of self make contact.

Notes by Roy McMillan

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